tells the story of Jan Theron’s involvement in the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU) during apartheid South Africa. Part memoir, part history this fascinating tale will reveal what working conditions were like in the 1970’s. It outlines the very beginnings of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
Theron states, ‘Solidarity in a trade union does not simply mean standing by your members, or by organised workers. It means solidarity with your class. At the time, in 1976, the working class was fragmented. Working for a trade union was part of a project to unite a fragmented class, and to give it a voice. This was the historical project to which a number of people from a certain intellectual background were drawn. This would be our contribution to the struggle: what we did to end apartheid. It was a struggle for democracy, but democracy did not just mean everyone getting to vote every so often in national elections. People also had to eat.
The most obvious way in which the working class was then fragmented was in terms of race. The Union put its commitment to solidarity into practice by uniting workers of different races in factories manufacturing food. To do so it had to overcome divisions among workers created by the ways in which government had structured employment, in terms of the law, which the bosses were able to exploit. Nowadays ‘bosses’ seems like a dated term, yet this is the term workers used to refer to the people for whom they actually worked. It is also no less important today than it was then to differentiate between those who control the factories and mines and those who operate at their behest.
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